This review comes on the heels of Schindler’s List’s 20th anniversary, but the impact of the film hasn’t diminished one bit in the interim. On the contrary, Spielberg’s most highly regarded film is more essential now than it’s ever been, as cinema becomes more technologically savvy, more commercialized, more data-driven, and film narrative becomes increasingly meta-referential, schizophrenically fast-paced, and reluctant to simply present art at face value.
After seeing Schindler’s List for the first time, Albert Lewis, Steven Spielberg’s childhood rabbi, commented that the film had made Spielberg “a full human being.” After I watched it for the first time I felt as though it was the first film that had made me really feel like a human being in a very long time.
Watching Schindler’s List serves as a reminder that cinema need not subvert, divert, or invert in order to be a bold or iconic production. Spielberg instead reverts to the basics of good filmmaking with Schindler’s List and demonstrates that sometimes the old ways are still the best.
Spielberg’s 1993 biopic/historical drama depicts the life of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and former Nazi spy active during World War II. It follows his transformation from a no-nonsense businessman, motivated solely by profit, to a protector of Jewish people who ultimately saves hundreds of Jews from deportation to death camps. Today Schindler is considered one of the greatest heroes of the Holocaust, a man who sacrificed his entire fortune and risked his own life in order to save human lives.
Filmed almost entirely in black and white, every scene of the movie offers a visual reminder of the darkness of the subject matter at hand. Though the decision to film in black and white could have diminished the efficacy of the film by reducing it to a hokey period piece, it’s ultimately the best way to depict the gravity of Schindler’s efforts to save the Jews of Krakow. The vintage look of Schindler’s List adds a feeling of historical authenticity to the film, a reminder that many of the things we see onscreen did actually happen.
You could write an entire review just on Spielberg’s use of light and dark in Schindler’s List, but then again, you could write a book on the film’s musical score. Composed by John Williams, the music for Schindler’s List won him his fifth Academy Award for an original score. Nothing I could say here about Williams’s sublime score would do it full justice. Let’s just say that when you hear it, you feel it, deeply.
However, the true triumph of the film is the acting. Cinema’s portrayal of real human beings struggling to survive in the midst of extraordinary situations often elicits powerful performances (as the number of award-winning historical dramas attests). But Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley decidedly ratchet up the caliber of acting for this film; powerful would be an understatement when describing the quality of these three performances.
Now known more for blockbuster action pictures, Liam Neeson truly stands out as Oskar Schindler, pulling no punches in his portrayal of the commercially motivated industrialist. Neeson’s background as a stage actor really comes through in this film as he relies on nothing more than his voice in many scenes to create incredible tension. Despite the biographical nature of the film, Neeson brings a complexity to the character that makes Schindler anything but predictable. Often barking orders, or sarcastically taunting a man he later saves from certain death (Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern), Neeson’s commanding voice ties the whole movie together and reflects the oratorical power that the real Oskar Schindler must have possessed in order to carry out his elaborate life-saving scheme.
But what is even more apparent than the incredible delivery Neeson brings to his lines is the imposing, larger-than-life presence of the 6 foot 4 inch actor. Neeson as Schindler absolutely towers over everyone else on screen. One scene in particular stands out. After Schindler pulls Itzhak from a train headed to a concentration camp, the two walk towards the camera together: Itzhak, haltingly and always a pace behind, and Schindler, confident, powerful, and brisk. Stage presence is Neeson’s best friend in this film as it serves as a constant reminder of the bravado and bluff the real Schindler must have demonstrated in order to maintain his image as the loyal Nazi industrialist just trying to make a buck off of Jewish labor.
As for the man Schindler must fool with his bluffs, Spielberg could not have cast a better man than Ralph Fiennes to portray Amon Goeth, the sadistic commandant of the Krakow concentration camp. Cold, merciless, and utterly terrifying in his brutality, Fiennes’s portrayal of Goeth goes down as the best non-fiction portrayal of a villain in cinema history. What really makes the role so memorable however is the feeling that you’re watching a real human being with a real history, not just a dramatized caricature of an evil man.
Fiennes describes his thoughts on the man he portrays in an interview by saying, “the job was to portray the man, the human being. There’s a sort of banality, that everydayness, that I think was important.” It’s this banality that makes Fiennes’ performance truly terrifying as it demonstrates how evil can be incorporated into the everyday routine of otherwise normal people. The everyday evil that Goeth embodies in the film is really a stand-in for the everyday evil perpetrated all across Europe during the Holocaust. The routine way it is portrayed may be the most powerful aspect of the entire film.
I began this review by saying that watching Schindler’s List has made me feel like a human being again; let me finish by explaining what I mean by that. This is a film that makes you feel deep emotions—overwhelming sorrow, great pangs of fear, absolute triumph—all in the span of the same film. By connecting the audience so thoroughly with one of the great human tragedies of the 20th century, Spielberg puts us back in touch with emotions that we Americans at least rarely see in our comparatively sheltered 21st century society.
I rarely have time to sit and just feel for three hours straight, but watching Schindler’s List makes me want to make time to grapple with something more epic, visceral, and profound than what’s going on in my life at the moment. Maybe that’s what truly great cinema is and I’m only now just discovering it.
Paul Popescu is a senior in the English Department.